Preserved lemons
FoodA flavorful ingredient that is better homemade

Preserved lemons

Preserved lemons are especially common in North African foods like tagine, Moroccan chicken with olives and fricassee.

(Photo by Jessica Grann)
(Photo by Jessica Grann)

I had not heard of preserved lemons — a common ingredient in Mediterranean recipes — before I delved into authentic Sephardic cooking, but they are now a staple in my kitchen. While we typically use the juice of a lemon to flavor food, we use the rind of preserved lemons after they’ve been pickled.

I’ve wanted to publish some recipes including this fantastic ingredient, but preserved lemons are not readily found at stores in my area. Since I prefer to make them at home, I thought that this would be a great recipe to share. Homemade always tastes better than store-bought, and preserved lemons are easy and much more affordable to make at home.

The flavor is subtle but bright and adds a beautiful flavor to fish, chicken and all sorts of salads and sides. Preserved lemons are especially common in North African foods like tagine, Moroccan chicken with olives and fricassee. You only need a few ingredients and a clean glass jar for canning.

6 lemons, divided: 3 per jar and extra for lemon juice
Coarse kosher salt, about ¼ cup
1 bay leaf
5 peppercorns

Your jars must be sanitized before preparation. You can run Mason jars and lids through a dishwasher cycle or immerse the jar and lid in boiling water. I typically use the 1½-cup wide-mouth Mason jars, but you can use a different shape jar if that’s what you have on hand.

Scrub the lemons well with a soft brush or cloth under warm water to release any dirt or pesticides before patting them dry. If the dried end of the stem is still attached to the lemon, take a sharp knife and slice off the smallest amount possible, keeping the shape of the lemon intact. Starting at the stem end, cut each lemon in half lengthwise, leaving about an inch of space near the pointy end, then repeat this step and cut down the other side, being careful not to cut the lemon entirely in half. You will have 4 lemon quarters that are attached only at the bottom so that the 4 quarters appear like open petals on a flower.

Add 1 tablespoon of salt to the bottom of the jar, then hold each lemon in your hand and liberally sprinkle it with another tablespoon of salt. Gently rub the salt over the interior surfaces. The fruit will look coated, and the salt will start to dissolve.

Place the lemon vertically into the jar so that it appears to be standing up.

Gently press down on the lemon, releasing the juice into the jar.

Repeat until the jar is almost full. Lemons come in all shapes and sizes, so you may need more lemons if they are smaller, like Meyer lemons.

Add a bay leaf and whole peppercorns to the jar.

Juice what you need of the remaining lemons to cover the rinds at the top, then screw the lid onto the jar.

Preserved lemons (Photo by Jessica Grann)
Allow the jars to sit in a cool, dark place for 3 weeks, gently shaking the jars every few days to help incorporate the salt.

If the lemons are coming up over the surface of the juice, wash your hands and gently press your fingers down into the jar, allowing the lemons to release any extra juice. If that does not produce enough liquid, then juice another lemon and add the juice to the jar until the lemons are fully immersed.

The lemons need to be packed as tightly as possible to get the best result. After a week or so it is common to see small bubbles in the jar, which is a normal part of the pickling process.

After 3 weeks, you can cook with the preserved lemons. They will keep in the refrigerator for at least 6 months.

When it’s time to use the lemons, take what you need from the jar. Using a sharp knife, cut the fruit and as much of the white pith off as you can, and discard everything but the rind. You can then mince the rind or slice it thinly before adding it to your dish.

If you have lots of lemons on hand, you can double or triple this recipe.

A word about the sealing lids: Regular Mason jars come with metal lids. These work well for a few weeks on the countertop, but the salt will corrode the metal lid after a while and make it difficult to remove. You can buy plain plastic lids to fit your jars, or you can move them to another airtight container with a rubber ring to store them for a longer time.

Enjoy and bless your hands! PJC

Jessica Grann is a home chef living in Pittsburgh.

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